Saturday, March 25, 2017

Want to Publish? Know Your Audience!

When authors sit down to write, they often ponder the title, setting, or inciting incident. The first question they should actually be asking is, For whom am I writing this story?  To be successful, it is imperative authors understand the genres and formats associated with books for children and young adults.  I am the first one to admit it can be overwhelmingly confusing, as one can find a host of definitions for what constitutes a picture book.  Alas, I have compiled quick and dirty guidelines for those ambiguous children’s/YA publishing genres.

Quick and Dirty Guidelines for Children’s Publishing Genres 

Picture Books
Age 2-8
Word Count – 500-800
Pages 24-36

Description – Picture books are large in physical size and combine words with captivating illustrations.  Picture books center around a child’s world - usually home, school, or neighborhood.  The illustrations play a significant role in telling the story with some picture books have no words at all.  The plots are simple with one main character/animal who embodies the child’s emotions, concerns and viewpoint. 

Examples:  
Where the Wild Things Are, Goodnight Moon, Heart and Soul, The Polar Express, Fancy Nancy 


Early Readers/Easy Readers
Age 5-9
Word Count – 500-1,500 Words
Pages 32-64

Description: Early or Easy Reader Books are written for children to read on their own.  They have short sentences, limited vocabulary, and center around a child’s world - school, neighborhood, or home.  Early/Easy Readers have more words and fewer pictures than a picture book, with some stories broken up into very short chapters.  The plot is told mainly through action and dialogue, with books averaging 2-5 sentences per page.  Genres can be fiction or nonfiction.  

Examples: Madeline’s Tea Party, Marley: The Dog Who Ate My Homework, Amelia Bedelia, Nate the Great, “I Can Read” Series 


Chapter Books
Age 7-10
Word Count – 4,000-12,000 Words
Pages 45-60

Description: Chapter books are a child’s first “real” book written for children who are becoming fluent, independent readers.  The main character is usually 8 or 9 years old and includes real-life and fantasy settings.  Stories contain a lot of action with short paragraphs and 3-4 page chapters.  Humor, mystery, and adventure are popular genres. 

Examples: Captain Underpants, Clementine, Magic Tree House, The Time Warp Trio, Amber Brown


Middle Grade Novel
Age 8-12
Word Count – 20,000-40,000 Words
Pages 100-150

Description: Middle grade novels are geared to 10-12 year olds, also known as tweens, with genres similar to those of adult fiction: mystery, adventure, humor, historical, contemporary, fantasy.  Most plot lines, characters, and settings are acceptable, although intense subjects, such as divorce, peer pressure, and drugs/alcohol should be handled skillfully.  Manuscripts are 100-150 pages with complex stories involving subplots, secondary characters, and sophisticated themes.  Protagonists should be 9-13 in age and embody the worldview and emotions of middle graders. 
Examples: Diary Of A Wimpy Kid, Loser, Holes, Hoot, Stargirl


YA Novel
Age 12 and up
Word Count – 40,000 – 75,000 Words
Pages 100-150

Description: YA books are for ages 12 and up with genres similar to those of adult fiction: mystery, adventure, humor, historical, contemporary, and fantasy.  Plots are complex involving several major characters, although a single protagonist should emerge as the focus of the book.  Themes should be relevant to a teenager’s world.  “Edgy YA” includes subjects such as sexuality, drugs/alcohol, bullying, and mental illness. 

Examples: The Fault in Our Stars, The Hunger Games, Between Shades of Gray, Twilight, 13 Reasons Why 


To write is to know your readers.  The first step is to read as many books as you can for your target audience and then of course, write on!  

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Tween Fever Hits Coffee County Middle School!

I had an amazing time last night at Coffee County Middle School's Author Night!  The tweens came out in droves eager to discover new and exciting books penned by local authors.  Thank you CCMS!


Saturday, March 4, 2017

How to Write a Thrilling Short Story

The Bennies of Short Story Writing

Just about everyone I know wants to be a novelist.  But let’s be honest.  Writing a book is a long and tedious process that can take years to finish.  To that end, almost every wannabe novelist I know never even comes close to finishing that elusive manuscript.  Even writing that first chapter can be a daunting task!

But writing a short story is an attainable endeavor with many benefits to the aspiring writer.  At 1,000 – 4,000 words, there is power in the short story.  It’s lean and mean, and can be read in one sitting.  The short story allows the writer the opportunity to explore the uncharted territory of a plot, character, or setting and make it pop!  In addition, one can experiment with other genres, develop their style, and use their short story to expand their platform as a marketing tool.  But most importantly, crafting a short story teaches the writer a vital skill: word economy.  To paraphrase my idol Stephen King, writing is “refined thinking.”  Nothing could be truer than when writing a short story, where the prose must be clean, compact, and concise.  If you are prone to a producing a bloated manuscript, trim the fat and turn it into a short story.  It’s quicker to write and if you’re lucky, quicker to sell.  


SWBS – Somebody Wanted But So…

Okay, so the benefits of writing a short story are clear, but the question still plagues most spinners of words.  How do I write a compelling story in a condensed timeframe, i.e. one sitting?  One word – conflict!  Conflict creates the need for story in the first place.  It is what adds tension and moves the story forward.  Without conflict, there is no story!

You need proof?  Think back in school when you first learned about story structure through Freytag’s Triangle.  Do you recall what’s on top?  Climax!  It is the decision-making, sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat moment of the conflict-ridden protagonist that determines the story’s outcome.
When I teach my middle school students about conflict, we use the following SWBS Statement:
Somebody ___________________________ Wanted ___________________________ But_______________________ So __________________________________.  (It is the “but” that is the heart of the conflict in the story).

Let’s look at a few examples of conflict in three classic short stories: “The Necklace,” “The Monkey’s Paw,” and “The Lottery,” paying particular attention to the “but” element.  Note: Major Spoiler Alerts!

“The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant
Somebody Madame Loisel wanted to appear rich at a party BUT lost the fake necklace she borrowed so she spent years paying it off.

“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs
Somebody The White family wanted to wish for money on a cursed monkey’s paw BUT their son Herbert got killed so they unwisely wished him back to life.

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
Somebody The Hutchinsons wanted to uphold the town’s traditions BUT Tessie won the lottery so she’s stoned to death.


The Thrilling Threesome 

Okay, conflict rules.  But how do I actually get started?  It’s literally as easy as 1-2-3.  Think of a thrilling threesome story prompt consisting of 1) character, 2) setting, and 3) a compelling conflict.
Here are ten short story prompts just begging to be penned into a story:


Ten Thrilling Threesome Short Story Prompts

1) A C.E.O. (character) gives a keynote address at a convention (setting) when overtaken by a panic attack (conflict).

2) A passenger (character) discovers an unattended carryon (conflict) when flying over the ocean (setting).

3) A book club hostess (character) receives a threatening anonymous note (conflict) at her own home (setting).

4) A disgruntled claustrophobe (character) finds himself locked in an elevator (conflict) at work overnight (setting).

5) A weary taxi driver (character) picks up a sinister stranger contemplating suicide (conflict) who wants to drive around town first (setting).

6) A couple (character) celebrates their anniversary at a cozy restaurant (setting) when a mysterious bouquet of flowers is brought to the table (conflict).

7) A daughter (character) cleans out her parents’ attic (setting) and discovers an urn of ashes (conflict).

8) A valedictorian (character) gets arrested for shoplifting (conflict) right before graduation (setting).

9) An unappreciated secretary (character) calls in sick and goes shopping (setting) where she runs into her boss’s wife with another man (conflict).

10)  A first-day-on-the-job nanny (character) takes the children to the park (setting) where she loses the master key only to have a burglar find it (conflict).



Need Suspense?  Implement G.E.M.

Okay, now that you have a thrilling story starter, throw in a little suspense, which of course is the secret sauce to story telling.  It’s easy with G.E.M. – an acronym I created to front-load my students when teaching the craft of suspense writing.  G.E.M. stands for Gothicism, Expansion of Time, and Magic of Three.

GOTHICISM: All suspense stories can benefit from an element of the gothic genre, such as the supernatural; an eerie, mysterious setting; emotion over passion; or distinctive characters who are lonely, isolated, and/or oppressed.  Throw in a tyrannical villain, a vendetta, or an illicit love affair - you've got Goth gold!  Why Gothicism?  It explores the tragic themes of life and the darker side of human nature.  What’s more, readers are innately attracted to it.  No one wants to read about someone’s perfectly wonderful life.  It’s boring.  Remember – conflict rules!

EXPANDING TIME: Next, I introduce the art of expanding time using foreshadowing, flashback, and implementing "well, um ...maybe…let me see” dialogue."  Expanding time allows the writer to twist, turn, and tangle up the plot.  “Tease your audience,” I tell my students.  “Pile on the problems and trap your protagonist with a ticking clock.  Every second counts with suspense!”  There is an old writing adage that says to write slow scenes fast and fast scenes slow.  By delaying the big reveal, we build tension and punch up the plot but with one caveat.  Expanding time demands a fine-tuned craftiness when writing a short story because of course, your time is limited.  Remember, every word counts!  

MAGIC OF THREE: Finally, the Magic of Three comes into play.  The Magic of Three is a writer's trick where a series of three hints lead to a major discovery.  During the first hint, the protagonist detects something is amiss.  The second hint sparks a more intense reaction but nothing is discovered - yet.  And then - BANG!  The third hint leads to a discovery or revelation.  During the big reveal, I teach my students to use and manipulate red flags and phrases, such as Suddenly, Without warning, In a blink of an eye, Instantly, A moment later, Like a shot, To my shock, and To my horror.      

Adding suspense to your short story tantalizes your readers and breeds amazing results.  It’s what makes a perfectly adequate story “un-put-downable.”  So go ahead, and write a short story that explodes with tension!  1) Start with a thrilling threesome.  2) Punch up the plot with conflict.  3) And, sprinkle it with suspense.  Not only will you hone your craft and have your readers begging for more, it could morph into something bigger - like that elusive novel that no longer seems so impossibly unattainable.  Write on!

(As featured in Killer Nashville's "From the Classroom")
http://www.killernashvillemagazine.com/from-the-classroom-writing-a-thrilling-short-story/

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Serendipity YA Finalist!

Thrilled to learn a WIP (Work In Progress) manuscript has placed in the 2017 Serendipity YA Discovery Writing Contest.  It is now off to renown agents and editors who will help choose the top five and...Grand Prize Winner.


Writing contests are one of the best ways to garner the attention of agents and editors.  For tips on how to win (or place), see my blog post: Seven Tips for Winning a Writing Contest.  Write on!!


Seven Tips for Winning a Writing Contest

So you’ve written an amazing manuscript.  Now what?  Before shopping it around (only to have it die in the slush pile), why not distinguish it as an award-winning manuscript?  Quite simply, agents and editors are more apt to read your manuscript with interest if it has already been vetted and stamped with approval in a writing contest.

Easier said than done, right?  Perhaps.  After all, prominent writing contests receive thousands of entries.  However, the bennies are worth it!  To give your manuscript the best chance possible of clinching a win, I’ve compiled a list of Seven Tips:

Seven Tips for Winning a Writing Contest

1) Be a rule worshiper!  When it comes to writing contest rules, follow the guidelines precisely.  Nothing will get you disqualified quicker than shrugging off formatting rules or having your name on the manuscript.  In other words, read the rules and then read them again! 

2) Titles matter.  A title is the judge’s first impression of you as a writer.  Find something inviting and perhaps a little mysterious.  A zany title or one that uses alliteration is sure to get the attention of the judges.  One word titles can be effectively potent! 

3) Proofread!  Make your persnickety high school English teacher proud and proofread!  Judges will literally judge you as unprofessional when grammar and usage errors run amok.  Have someone else look over your work for spelling, punctuation, and tense shifts.  Strive for active rather than passive voice. 

4) Submit Early.  Most judges begin reading as soon as the entries come in.  The smart play is to have your work read while they are fresh.  An editor once told me eighty percent of entries are submitted during the last few days of the contest, so judges will be inundated towards the end.   

5) Include a bio if possible.  Some contests may not allow this, so check it out first.  A bio outlining your credentials will give credence to your writing and put the judge in a good “head space” before reading.   

6) Lead with a great hook!  It’s just a hard fact that judges will write off (pun intended) entrants with weak openings.  Start with a powerful, moving, or hilarious first sentence, and you will hopefully snare the judge for a win. 

7) Write the most compelling piece you can!  Kind of obvious, but submit your absolute best work possible.  Incorporate a lively theme, memorable characters, and vivid words that evoke imagery.  It’s trite – but show, don’t tell!

Still feel intimidated?  Don’t!  Remember the number one golden rule of writing contests: You never win what you don’t submit.  Write on!!


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Hooking Reluctant Readers: A Guide for Parents

            Hearing the words, “I hate to read!” can be a parental nightmare, conjuring up images of below basic standardized test scores, remedial classes, or worse – dropping out of school and not going to college.  Yet, it is a universal reality that many parents have reluctant reading spawn – even those parents who firmly classify themselves as voracious readers.  When I meet with parents at conferences, the following scenario is not at all uncommon:

            “What can we do about Tommy?  My husband loves to read.  I love to read.  Tommy’s older sister loves to read.  Tommy’s younger brother loves to read.  The dog loves to read.  But Tommy hates to read!  I don’t understand it.  Help us – Pleeeeease!”

            Seeing the panic in their eyes, I tell the parents the first step is to determine if their child is in fact a reluctant reader (R.R.) or just a passionless one.  To determine where the child is on the Reluctant Reader Richter scale, I ask three questions:

1 - Does your child avoid reading whenever possible?
2 - Does your child complain when doing it?
3 - Does your child have little to no retention or comprehension when they are finished?  

            If the answer is yes to all three questions, I tell them it is safe to assume that their child is in fact allergic to books.  And that’s when I smile and say, “Let’s give them an antihistamine they’re going to love.”
           
RR Strategy#1 - Ownership

            Parents should allow children to choose their own books.  If children “see” themselves in what they read, they will naturally become more interested in reading.  Guide your child to books classified as Hi/Lo (High interest / Low Level).  These books have major RR appeal: humor, a face paced plot, kid relevance, and visual appeal.  I also encourage parents to give their child a monthly or weekly book allowance so they can start their own personal library.  Make their bedroom a literary lair by preparing a reading corner with comfy pillows and beanbags.  Decorate the walls with book cover posters or have your child design their own.  

RR Strategy #2 - Keep It Fun!

            Eventually kids will read independently, but before they to, they need to have a series of positive experiences.  Make reading relaxing and low key.  Allow them to read graphic novels, joke books, and choose-your-own adventure books.  Encourage them to read aloud funny or interesting parts of the book.  Utilize technology and download audio or e-books.  Dispel any Rigid Reading Rules your child has picked up in the past.  For example, it’s okay not to finish a book.  I even tell my students I have my own page 7 rule.  If a book doesn’t grab me by page 7, I put it down and choose something else.  A reluctant reader might have a page 1 or 2 rule, and that’s okay.  On the flip side, it’s okay to reread a favorite book, as this builds fluency and confidence through repetition.  Be patient with your child and don’t EVER use reading as a form of punishment.  Remember, positive associations are essential.

RR Strategy #3 – Be a Buddy

            Finally, be your child’s reading buddy. Schedule regular library or local bookstore visits.  Assist with comprehension in a disarming way by asking open-ended questions:


·      Why do you think the character did __________________?
·      What would you change the title to?
·      Who would you want as a best friend?
·      What was your favorite part?

When your child has a book report at school, work with the teacher to ensure a positive experience.  Ask if they can choose their own book and if extra time is needed, request an extension.  Most teachers understand the plight of the reluctant reader and want to be a part of the solution.

            A love of reading is a lifelong gift parents can give their children.  Like any pursuit, some children are more receptive than others.  Nevertheless, by giving your child ownership, making reading, fun, and being a partner in child’s journey as a reader, your reluctant reader will turn voracious in no time.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

'Twas the Night Before Christmas, I Was Reading a Book...

Here is a list of my favorite Christmas classics that never fail to get me in the holiday spirit.  As Christmas inches closer, I wrap myself in my favorite cuddly blanket, pour some hot cocoa (the frothy kind, made with real milk, and bobbing marshmallows), and go back to a time when I, too believed in a jolly man in red...


1) A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens

2) The Polar Express - Chris Van Allsburg

3) How the Grinch Stole Christmas - Dr. Seuss

4) "The Gift of the Magi" - O. Henry

5) The Nutcracker - E.T.A. Hoffman, illustrations by Maurice Sendak

6) The Best Christmas Pageant Ever - Barbara Robinson

7) The Christmas Box - Richard Paul Evans

8) The Night Before Christmas - Jan Brett

9) The Tailor of Gloucester - Beatrix Potter

10) The Father Christmas Letters - J.R.R. Tolkien


Merry Christmas!!!


"God bless us, everyone!"  Tiny Tim, A Christmas Carol